Overview of Virtual Car

Engineers rely on scientific models and prototype testing in much of their work. Scientific principles (such as F = ma) help predict how a design will behave before it is built. In fact, many design problems are pursued by identifying the principles that govern the problem, and then generating and evaluating possible designs through modeling techniques, before building anything. But because modeling often neglects uncertainties such as friction or air resistance, it eventually becomes necessary to build and test prototypes of the most promising alternatives.

Modeling is often automated by software. Engineers still draw upon their education in science and mathematics to identify the principles that govern the problem, but once identified, the principles can often be encoded into a spreadsheet (e.g., Excel), 3-D solid modeling software (such as Pro-E), or computational tools (such as Maple, Matlab, or Mathematica). This frees the designer to concentrate on the objectives and constraints of the design problem without being distracted by repetitive calculations. A software-based model allows the designer to generate and evaluate hundreds of design alternatives and what if scenarios as fast as they can be conceived.

Virtual Prototyping is the most advanced form of this technique. Virtual Prototyping is the use of computer models to represent complex designs in their entirety, and test them as if they were real before building anything. This is how Boeing designs its planes. Virtual prototyping is being adopted rapidly for many diverse applications. NASA projects, historical reconstructions of naval vessels, and automotive design are just a few examples.

But eventually it still is necessary to build something real. If you're fortunate, your virtual prototyping software will also be capable of Rapid Prototyping (RP). RP helps create physical prototypes of modeled design alternatives, directly from within the software. RP output can range in sophistication from a set of part-building templates printed on paper, to an actual 3-D printer that builds true 3-D objects using jets of liquid polymer. The future of RP is pretty exciting.

Virtual Car allows students at almost any level to design, simulate, and rapidly construct and race small model cars. It adopts the spirit of virtual prototyping and rapid prototyping to bridge the gap between analytical modeling and prototype building. Using only an ordinary printer and common, readily available materials, Virtual Car provides a fun and absorbing hands-on activity that stimulates team problem solving, provides a strong physical context for related lessons in physics and mathematics, and introduces students to modern engineering techniques.